With this essay, I kick off what I’m planning out as a series of reviews of what I consider Great Films. In the tradition of the late great film journalist Roger Ebert, I’m putting together my own canon of films that have contributed significantly to my identity as a film buff, an artist, and a person in general. A designation as a Great Film indicates an A+ grade, which supersedes any and all prior assessments.
The Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger once characterized the condition that he called “autistic psychopathy”—and that we today name in his honor—as “the extreme end of masculinity.” I imagine that this is why—despite my growing concern for the representation of women in cinema—I still have an affinity for particularly masculine films, which take, as their primary theme, what it means to be a man, and the various pitfalls of testosterone: silence, isolation, obsession, temper. My awareness of these pitfalls is twofold, as I have experienced heightened forms of all of them; I register them as a man, and as an Aspergerian. There’s been discussion in my family of the Films Every Guy Loves: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Shawshank Redemption, The Professional, Scarface, Chinatown, Citizen Kane and various films by Leone and Scorsese come up often, and to that list, I would add Snatch, Training Day, Oldboy (the original), Seven Samurai and, of course, Heat. I am convinced, in fact, that Heat is the best on the list, in its encapsulation of who men are, and not least in how they contrast with women. I am tempted to go out on a limb and call Heat a sort-of Asperger’s 101 lecture, but that would be pushing it. For now, I will call it my go-to film for probing the essential extremities of masculinity, and the tragedy of them.
I’ve just made some weighty claims—I’m nothing if not a contrarian and a devil’s advocate—so let me outline a distinction I like to make between a “perfect film” and a “masterpiece.” The two are not interchangeable. I can recognize The Godfather, for instance, as a perfect film, in that the construction of its narrative strikes a kind-of Nash equilibrium that would be ruined if any part of it were altered or rearranged. But I cannot recognize it as a masterpiece, in that on every viewing, it appears to me as too callous and hubristic, too self-aware and self-important, even too simple for its own good. Similar goes for Citizen Kane, which to this day demands immense credit for its formal innovations, but which nonetheless has its dated, awkward beats, such as Kane’s rushed-over first marriage and the outrageous conceit of the frame story. (There’s no way she could’ve heard him whisper “Rosebud.”) I thus understand why many call them the Greatest Films Ever Made, but I cannot join in that consensus because those films do not connect with me on a personal level as deeply as Harold and Maude and Persona do. Heat is not a perfect film; it has its flaws, and I will get into them. But it is a masterpiece because of the magnitude of what it accomplishes in terms of theme, story, character and artistry.
Heat, directed by Michael Mann (whose second-best is nowhere close to this), is a cops-and-robbers epic, but is it good versus evil? Al Pacino, who plays LAPD R.H. detective Vincent Hanna, and Robert De Niro, who plays main thief Neil McCauley (a real-life figure), share first billing and are clearly meant to be co-protagonists. Is there more focus on Hanna? Are we meant to root for Hanna? Perhaps, but I’m on my fourth viewing and the focus seems to be more on Neil and his crew. Of the police characters, only Hanna is given substance, as well as a crucial love interest, Justine (Diane Venora). Most of the rest of this vast ensemble is on the other side of the law. What’s more, Neil is of the classic antihero stock. Most if not all of cinema’s great antiheroes live by a personal code, and Neil’s is my favorite: “You want to be making moves on the street?” he quotes an old cellmate. “Have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner.” The film critic David Thomson has praised De Niro for playing Vito Corleone with “Asperger’s-like distance,” and Neil’s social asceticism is too emblematic of that to be called merely masculine. Friendships to him are unstable, volatile, guilt-inducing, too vulnerable; Neil may be a villain, yet I feel like I know him.
Masculine films are often criticized for falling into the trap of designing their female roles to serve the central male-dominated stories. Most of the women of Heat do exist as love interests, but they are not without their own senses of agency, self-interest and self-preservation. Witness how Justine, Hanna’s third wife, puts up with her first husband’s total absence and the emotional toll it takes on her daughter, Lauren (a young Natalie Portman), and how calm yet brutal she is in the way she counteracts Neil’s frequent absence, in the film’s most blackly comic scene (“You do not get to watch my fucking television set!”). Also witness how Charlene (Ashley Judd), late in the film after shit has hit the fan, uses her wits to maneuver herself, her infant son and her husband—Neil’s henchman Chris (Val Kilmer)—just barely out of the LAPD’s grasp. If both women are doomed to see their lives through the prisms of the men they marry and fuck, then at least they have the knowledge and chutzpah to work with and against those men to their advantage. Can we agree, too, that men often construct their lives around the women in them? Recall the bartender in The Shining and his toast to women: “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Un-P.C., yes, but here, it’s apt. Hanna is a workaholic, forced by duty to alienate wife and stepdaughter, yet he’s still trying to make at least one marriage work. Chris lives to pull off heists and gamble all his earnings away, at the expense of a family he loves to death. They need the very women that they desert and betray the most. They are the quintessential male parasites.
Neil understands that he’d be the same if he was involved with a woman, and that’s part of the reason for his code. He exists to steal, whether he targets bearer bonds in an armored truck, jewelry in a shipping container or cash in a bank vault. He’s a criminal; he doesn’t really trust anyone, much less a woman, to trust him. Yet, not even he can escape the lure of romance. Not surprisingly for such an XY film, Heat is not always secure in how it portrays its women, who are at times given clunky dialogue. Much of what Justine says would work okay as poetry but comes off as pedantry when spoken: “You don’t live with me,” she tells Hanna. “You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey.” Charlene, in the meantime, is often used as a vessel for clumsy exposition. “You’re a child growing older,” she gripes to Chris. “We’re not making forward progress like real grown-up adults living our lives because I married a gambling junkie.” (Not that Venora’s and Judd’s deliveries hurt.) It is thus all the more intriguing that Neil’s woman, a bookstore clerk named Eady (Amy Brenneman), is written without flaw. Casual, blunt but rather cool, appropriately ephemeral, she meets Neil by accident and initiates the conversation, and Neil reciprocates out of courtesy, if not out of pity. He has to; hell, it’s what I would’ve done. Ubiquitous as it is, love is too demanding a subplot for cinema; not even the three hours of Heat are enough to encompass the development of a romance. Amidst its glimpses into marriages striving and fracturing, Heat gives us one genuine love story in Neil and Eady, and it gets away with it because it is clear that those two are just dating, mutually interested but taking their time—and that’s plenty risky for Neil.
The care and precision with which Neil and Eady are created and linked is further evidence that Mann’s script identifies more with Neil as an antihero than with Hanna as a hero. Yet, theirs are not the only strong characterizations. Heat earns its running time in spades not least because small roles that lesser filmmakers would have written as lazy ciphers are fleshed out, given dimensions and, when necessary, their own love interests. The film here transcends the crime drama to emerge as a panorama of L.A. criminals, in various stages of life, falling deeper into their trade and dealing with the consequences. Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-con out on parole and trapped in a fast food joint, hints the audience to what could be in store for Neil and company if they do time in prison and try to redeem themselves afterwards with a legitimate job. It’s not much; the appeal of thievery is the access to fast cash and the potential for a life that’s better than Breedan’s. He has a woman to encourage him to stay straight, but the powerlessness of his workplace gets to him in the end, and a chance reunion with fellow Folsom vet Neil is all it takes to lure him back into crime and initiate his downfall. Trejo (Danny Trejo), Neil’s driver, is at the center of one of the film’s most raw, agonizing moments; stuck to the floor of his house by his own congealed blood, he learns that his wife is lying murdered (likely raped, too) in the next room and decides right away to throw in the towel on life. The film’s most vile presence, Waingro (Kevin Gage), is depicted as a trigger-happy opportunist and a serial murderer of underage prostitutes—a misogynist in the worst sense. Critically, he operates as an antagonist not to Hanna but to Neil; his actions greatly assist Hanna’s investigation and are the key impetus of Neil’s tragedy.
I’ve spent so much time and words focused on gender that I’ve neglected the other pair of codependent opposites bandied about in this film: cops and robbers. One of the great strengths of Heat is its purity, its functionality. The criminals gather in L.A. They make some noise, drop some bodies. They get Hanna on their trail, and from there on out, it’s cat-and-mouse. The scope is broad and complex, but the story itself is primitive. The characters’ motivations, their raisons d’être, do not have—nor do they need—much more depth than the film reels and screens manifesting their story in pixels. The famous scene, with Pacino and De Niro having coffee, is intriguing in this regard. The more I think about it, the more this scene strikes me as a curious anomaly, not unlike Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in that it doesn’t really advance the plot but rather provides a poetic interlude in which actors can show off. What’s Hanna trying to do during the scene? Get inside Neil’s head? Talk him out of risking lives in his exploits? Give him fair warning? Grandstand in front of him?
Let’s face it: the scene is a conceit, one expressly designed to coddle the Godfather fanboys who sat through the film to see Pacino and De Niro duke it out. It’s an actors’ pas de deux, an upstaging match not unlike what comedians do all the time. Watch closely, and here and there, you’ll catch a glint in the eye and a small smile cracking when Pacino and De Niro can’t help but slightly break character and sit in awe at the fact that such an encounter is at last taking place. Yet, the film gets away with this, too, because it displays a refreshing honesty about how banal these archetypes are, and how tragic the people who follow them have become. There’s no glamor here, just testosterone. I mean, just listen to this dialogue. Neil: “I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” Hanna, reiterating the sentiment: “You know, we’re sitting here like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do.” And this exchange: Hanna: “I don’t know how to do anything else.” Neil: “Neither do I.” Hanna: “I don’t want to, either.” Neil: “Neither do I.” The Pinteresque economy of this is indelible. It’s almost as if Mann is thumbing his nose at the audience, trying to make them rethink the worth of seeing these two actors in the same scene for the sake of it while the ensemble also boasts Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Hank Azaria, etc., etc.
I wrote my Haverford senior thesis on the author John Dos Passos and in part on how his masterpiece, the U.S.A. trilogy, operates as a Cubist text, sacrificing depth to study and mimic the interplay of textual and filmic surfaces. (Props to my old classmate Charles Birkel for helping me in this regard.) Heat is a similar text. Thomson writes, in a qualified review, “Heat is a skin—taut, alert, buffed—like the look of a great athlete or a new car.” And what a skin it is. The cinematography of Dante Spinotti here is beyond criticism. Every shot in this film—every single arrangement of strobe light and night sky, interior shape and exterior expanse, minimal emotion and acute stoicism—ought to be a painting in a major museum. Simple, mundane details stick out to me on every viewing: the blue ribbon that slinks back to the ground after the armored truck is knocked over and careens through the car lot; the glass of water in the napkin that Neil leaves Eady after their first night together; the brutal cut from Waingro pulling a girl’s hair to him snapping a cap off a beer; Hanna’s ally Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) staring into space for a solid second after issuing a command to an uncooperative informant; Neil sneaking up and balancing on the edge of the backyard pool of a man he is about to murder. The film also has the distinction of having candidates for the best opening shot and the best closing shot in all of cinema.
The editing does justice to the photography. Observe the central bank robbery set piece—and the thuggish, depraved, angering automatic-weapons shootout that follows it. It opens with a prelude of Charlene and Eady starting their average days while their men go off to break the law and terrorize L.A. After the sequence, two women watch the news break, on TV, of the massacre in which both of their men were slaughtered. This double juxtaposition is a haunting stroke of genius. Lastly, the music of Elliot Goldenthal—a blend of ethereal orchestrations and unctuous electronic rumbles—makes a perfect marriage with Spinotti’s imagery. This is a quiet film (at least, when guns aren’t going off) that demands to be listened to loud, to relish every iota and nuance of sound that comes coursing through Mann’s L.A. landscape.
I don’t agree with Thomson’s assessment that the film aims to promote or even idealize Neil’s code, nor that it views “cops and thieves [as] interchangeable.” There are parallels between the two, and there are moments—as in real life—when the binary blurs; case in point, the classic scene when Neil gets to do reconnaissance on Hanna’s team, just like Hanna did surveillance on him. But ultimately, the two are distinct. Hanna is pure Pacino: pure heat, always coked up, lurking, popping up in roads, from behind doorways and around corners, unhinged yet calculated. He’s an expert cop, with a superlative eye for detail, but he’s even more a force of nature. Neil, in De Niro’s hands, is the more distinguished, less typecast presence: youngish and brazen, sophisticated, with gristle growing on him everyday, aware he should quit while he’s ahead. He’s just as intelligent as Hanna (the only detail he really fails to account for is Waingro), and it’s part and parcel of his identity to spend his whole life dodging the likes of him. Though cat and mouse sometimes see how the other half lives, the food chain remains the same.
In its study of cops and criminals, Heat is superficial and intends to be so, but it is a deep film in terms of gender—in how it dissects the grace, wisdom and constant marginalization of the feminine, and the innate Aspergerian essence of the masculine—and the entire ensemble is absent of any trace of stock character. Even Waingro’s victim is given a grieving family to expand her profile. Everyone present is human, even when they are mired in über-masculine archetypes that lead to their destruction. As for Neil’s code, I think the film condemns it. Every character arc here ends in tragedy, but the worst one, in my opinion, arrives in Neil and Eady’s final moment, in which the code is called into play. That moment is the purest Aspergerian tragedy I’ve ever seen in film, and I’m not going out on a limb in saying that.
In memory of B.B. King, whose song “The Thrill is Gone” plays in this film, and the afore-credited John Nash and his wife, Alicia.